The primary arguments for putting light rail on the mall are that it is has been planned for a long time, is needed to increase capacity, provides access to Portland State and enables a connection to a future light rail corridor to Milwaukie.
All of these arguments are flawed. Unlike the OHSU Tram project, there is still time to change it before major costs have been incurred.
Just because light rail on the mall has been in the downtown plan since the 1970s does not mean it is still a good idea. No one at that time would have guessed that light rail would be carrying 95,000 passengers a day, almost a third of all TriMet’s passengers. If it weren’t for light rail, the Banfield and Sunset freeways would both need another lane each way to handle peak-hour traffic. Light rail has become a significant high-capacity regional system. It has the latent capacity of another two freeway lanes if it is not saddled with more slow downtown operations.
Although it is slow, especially for those traveling through downtown, the existing downtown alignment probably has the capacity for another 20 years of growth if all 30 trains an hour (the maximum capacity of the Steel Bridge and the Banfield segment) can operate through to the westside. North/south light rail will need another corridor.
An eastside north/south route, possibly in the Water Avenue corridor, should be considered. Light rail must do a better job of attracting non-downtown trips if it is to have a significant impact on reducing freeway congestion. This more direct route for the Yellow Line would be faster and attract more passengers than if it is diverted downtown over the Steel Bridge and back again over a new bridge south of downtown. It also would be less costly to build and operate.
Given the serious traffic congestion in the McLoughlin Blvd/I-5 corridor, this faster Yellow Line alignment is needed as soon as possible, along with an extension north to Hayden Island. In the future, the line should be extended north to Clark County and south to Oregon City, establishing a north-south and east-west high-capacity rail system as an effective alternative to freeway commuting.
Transfers between north/south and east/west trains would not be a significant deterrent to downtown-bound commuters if frequent service, a quality transfer environment and sufficient capacity were provided. Rail systems throughout the world require many passengers to transfer to reach their destinations. As an example, in Toronto, passengers on the heavily used Bloor-Danforth cross-town line must transfer to the Younge-University-Spadina Lines to go to or from downtown.
To avoid traffic snarls and slow running through the Rose Quarter area, the Yellow Line could be elevated with a station over the existing east/west tracks. Transferring passengers could be provided safe indoor escalator access between train platforms. A similar covered station would also be needed at the Hawthorne Bridge ramps in order to provide direct connections to all of the Hawthorne Bridge bus routes and a future streetcar line.
Improved bus service on the transit mall would provide better circulator service than would light rail. Buses currently provide good access during weekday business hours but not evenings and weekends. During those times, bus service is sporadic and infrequent. Few people, except those waiting for these buses, have any reason to be there. The mall lacks residential development and has a concentration of sterile institutional buildings that close at the end of the business day. Businesses like restaurants and retail shops, which attract clientele, do not stay open because of the lack of customer access.
Denver has a downtown bus-only transit mall serving its retail core. It is a dynamic people-friendly place, day and night, weekdays and weekends. Its street furniture is comfortable and useful, inviting friendly social interaction. The free bus service is frequent (every two to five minutes). Its electric hybrid buses have low floors and four wide doors, allowing quick boarding and deboarding.
Here in Portland, we could add electric shuttle buses similar to Denver’s on the mall from PSU past Union Station all the way to the Pearl District. Shuttle buses are better than trains for transporting people within the downtown area because they can run more frequently, are compatible with the existing buses and can make more stops closer to people’s destinations. They would compliment the service now provided by the cross-town light rail lines, downtown bus routes and the Portland Streetcar. They could be quiet, pollution-free electric trolley buses maintained, serviced and stored beneath I-405 adjacent to the Portland Trolley facilities.
In the future, the overhead power system could be extended up Marquam Hill, replacing the noisy diesel bus service to OHSU with trolley buses. If buses on other routes were equipped with diesel-electric hybrid power and retractable trolley poles, the overhead wires could also provide them with power, allowing them to turn off their engines while operating on the mall.
It is still not too late. Besides the advantages described above, the mall project would be far less costly and disruptive to construct, cost less to operate and would attract more ridership than the current proposal.